Syrians' Hopes for Freedom Remain Mostly Unfulfilled
By:  DANIEL J. WAKIN -New York Times

AMASCUS, Syria, Nov. 6 — A lazy fan clicks in the dim neon of his waiting room as Haitham al-Maleh, a lawyer who helped defend the latest crop of political detainees, describes the last time the authorities called him in.

"They told me in a nice way: 'You are an old man. Better for you to retire,'" he said. Or perhaps, they said, he should relocate to the United States, where he has relatives. "I answered them that my roots are in Damascus," he said.

Then came the summons to military court on charges related to his work with the Human Rights Association of Syria, which Mr. Maleh helped establish. Mr. Maleh, who is 71, is charged with belonging to an illegal organization, publishing false news in the association's journal, circulating the publication without permission and causing sectarian divisions.

If convicted in the trial, scheduled for January, Mr. Maleh could be sent to jail, joining 10 other professionals — including 2 members of Parliament — who were sentenced earlier this year for advocating wider political freedoms and criticizing the government.

After President Bashar al-Assad took office two years ago, hope spread that he would create an era of political and economic reforms in what remains a police state. Freewheeling political discussion forums sprang up in the first half of 2001, a moment that came to be known as the Damascus Spring. But hope dampened with the arrests, and now Syria seems to have entered an ambiguous moment.

The courts followed through with 3- to 10-year sentences for the Syrian 10, as rights groups call them, and now Mr. Maleh and three others are facing charges. Yet there are signs that at least some sense of greater freedoms have taken hold.

Some Syrians and Westerners living here say that while outright criticism of the government is taboo, people in private groups no longer fear voicing displeasure with the system. A few of the forums have continued.

On a recent Sunday, several dozen people gathered at a private home in Damascus, according to an account by a Western diplomat. A speaker addressed them, and they discussed the influence of the military on university life, in which students are required to undergo training. The topic was a relatively tame one, and members of Syria's ever-present intelligence forces certainly attended, the diplomat said. Other groups continue to meet as long as they are small, quiet and monitored, rights advocates say.

In another example, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Damascus University sponsored a symposium two weeks ago on international humanitarian law. One Syrian professor criticized the government for keeping Syria out of the International Criminal Court, according to someone who attended the symposium. During a question-and-answer session, the professor also told students to forgo the anti-Israel diatribes and just ask a question. That would not have happened several years ago, rights advocates say.

Even the limited opening of the usually closed trial to Syrian and foreign observers was seen as a sign of liberalization.

The jailings last spring and summer come as Syria seeks an association agreement with the European Union, part of President Assad's strategy to open up the country's markets and improve the economy. Human Rights Watch is calling on the European Union to make the release of the prisoners a condition of an agreement.

Meanwhile, rumors are circulating about the possibility that some of the men will be released in an amnesty to mark Ramadan, the holy month that began on Wednesday.

President Assad took other important steps toward opening Syria's tightly controlled society, appointing technocrats to economic positions in government and establishing laws to liberalize the economy. Cellphones and Internet cafes proliferated, but the laws, like allowing private banks, have not been put into effect or are taking hold only slowly.

President Assad, whose youthful yet stern gaze proliferates in posters and photographs across the city, is even said to have departed from the austere style of his father, Hafez al-Assad, a tough ruler for 30 years until his death in 2000. Stories circulate about the president, who is 37, being seen in restaurants, buying a newspaper, even posing with tourists at historic sites. Even if they are rumors they show that Syrians are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for good intentions, some Western diplomats say. Indeed, many Syrians say they have a sense that things will be changing some day, if not immediately.

"He's doing as much as he can in a difficult environment," said a Western aid official with long experience in the region.

Some suggest that President Assad backed away from political reforms after being caught by surprise by how rapidly they spread, particularly at a time when he was trying to consolidate power.

"The popularity of the forums really took everyone aback," said Virginia Sherry, associate director of the Middle East division for Human Rights Watch. "They really caught on and were multiplying across the country, and obviously that was perceived as too far, too fast by the men in power."

Others say that crises in the region — the fallout from Sept. 11, the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli crackdown, and the United States threat to Iraq — have forced him to put domestic reform on hold.

Another theory holds that he has been hamstrung by a recalcitrant bureaucracy, a coterie of powerful businessmen and the longtime Baath Party loyalists of his father who surround him.

"He is not strong enough to put his ideas in practice," Mr. Maleh said. "His father created his staff. Now the picture is the opposite. The staff created him."

After the charges against him were lodged at the end of July, Mr. Maleh said he left the country for nearly three months but decided to come back to fight the case. "I have to pay the tax for freedom," he said. "I am ready to do it."

It will not be a new experience. Mr. Maleh said he was first arrested in 1951, at age 20. Above the bulky oriental furniture in his waiting room, framed Koranic verses that he made from tiny beads hang on the walls, the product of the seven years he spent in prison in the 1980's.

"I have nothing," he said. "I have only this mouth. I can't shut it."